Ruminations

RuminationsHamlet, talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams” (Act I, Scene II). Hamlet’s body does not seem to be the problem. Uploading Hamlet’s mind into a supercomputer and dispensing with his body would only make matters worse.

Raffi Khatchadourian, in “The Doomsday Invention,” mentions the scientist and sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, “who envisioned advanced civilizations inhabited by intelligent robots (each encoded with simple, ethical Laws of Robotics, to prevent it from doing harm)” (New Yorker, 23 Nov 2015, 71). In other words, the robots would be eunuchs.

“Extropianism,” Raffi says, “is a libertarian strain of transhumanism that seeks ‘to direct human evolution,’ hoping to eliminate disease, suffering, even death; the means might be genetic modification, or as yet un­invented nanotechnology, or perhaps dispensing with the body entirely and uploading minds into supercomputers. (As one member noted, ‘Immortality is mathematical, not mystical.’)” (67). So much for immortality. But isn’t eternal youth the goal, a never ending Spring dawn, not to grow old indefinitely, like a wintry universe?

In the conclusion to his study “The Human Body” (1963), Asimov, trying to explain the primary difference and advantage of the human relative to other animals (and other life forms), focused on the number of cells in the human brain (a part of the body he devoted an entire other study to). “The human brain is nothing short of monstrous in size,” Asimov said (309). Monstrous in relative size to the human body, and the human body is no small thing, and, Asimov points out, “a large animal is less the sport of the universe, in many ways, than a small animal is” (308). These are interesting perspectives, to say the least. Will we be able to upload the brain but leave the “bad dreams” behind, in the vacated body? Is the body simply a room for the brain, a room the brain might move out of some day, for new digs? I don’t know if it was Asimov’s idea or his publishers, but the “The Human Body” was kept separate from “The Human Brain.”

Monstrous, too, the harm a brain might bring to its own body, in some attempt to escape, or bring to another, in some attempt to enter, particularly when disguised as a heart. To inhabit another’s brain for purposes of manipulating and exploiting its body, but only for a time, the body a motel room, a rental, a sentence fragment.

Orville Prescott’s January 21, 1948 review of Truman Capote’s first novel, “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” (New York Times) criticizes Capote’s writing for its lack of “narrative clarity”: “Reality for Mr. Capote is not material and specific; it is emotional, poetic, symbolical, filled with sibilant whispering and enigmatic verbal mysteries.” But how else was Capote to tell his story and get it published in the United States in 1948? Capote was not a beatnik.

“Should I get married? Should I be Good?” the Beat poet Gregory Corso ruminates in “Marriage,” his poem that ironically considers the choice between the mores of his time and the impossibility of pretending to be someone he is not. There is only one room he can live in, and it must have poetry written all over its walls.

Or, as Whitman put it in “Song of Myself”:

“Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes, I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it, The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it. The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless, It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it, I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked, I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”

Another room book is James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” (1956). The first person narrative concerns David, an American in 1950’s Paris who tries to satisfy a growing disparity between what he thinks he might want and be reasonably satisfied with, unopposed to society’s equivocal mores and arguments, and what he increasingly, as he crosses the existential divide of honest self-knowledge and acceptance, knows he needs.

Where Capote might have deliberately disguised his themes, Baldwin’s style is clear and realistic. Neither the brain nor the body are shrouded in the mystical, but the action is full of compromise, deceit, and betrayal. “Giovanni’s Room” is a rumination on love and unrequited love. How hard is it to love another as yourself if you not only don’t love yourself but grow to abhor yourself? Many men and women have tried it, usually to great disappointment. Baldwin’s David is honest some might say to a fault. He looks for expiation in all the wrong places.

Some of the scenes with dialog in “Giovanni’s Room” emulate Hemingway’s style where what is said best is what is left unsaid, as indeed Baldwin’s characters move in and out of cafes and bars like Le Select, a Jake Barnes of “The Sun Also Rises” old haunt, where Jake might have met them with a smile, and Lady Brett Ashley might have danced with them, the various merry but unhappy groups drinking and carousing through the well-lit but ambiguous Parisian night. Baldwin’s style is generous, almost absurdly gentle in places, beautiful in the way that unabashed beauty might cause pain. Love involves sacrifice. The body is a lamb, the brain a beast. Will machines ever be capable of human love and sacrifice? Wouldn’t the human brain, uploaded into a machine, simply crave a body?

Dog eared persons, categorized and shelved, used books. Ruminations. Room and ate shuns.

On Prayer and Poetry

What is prayer? When I was a kid, I learned the Catholic prayers, and believed Sister Mary Annette, who liked to quote Shakespeare, when she said, “Words without thought never to heaven go.” King Claudius is trying to pray, looks like he is praying, to Hamlet, anyway, and so Hamlet decides to put off killing him, for fear that if the king is killed while praying, he’ll go to heaven, while Hamlet wants full revenge, not to send his uncle to an unjust reward. What Hamlet doesn’t realize is that while Claudius’s “words fly up, [his] thoughts remain below.” Annette waxed literary, incomparable to none.

Impossible to know with certainty if the thoughts of others are wedded to their words, so I don’t know if I alone among Annette’s 8th grade class had this problem, but my rote prayers were recited much like Malachy McCourt explains in his book “A Monk Swimming.” He had misheard “amongst women” in the prayer known as the “Hail Mary.” But if his thoughts were behind his words, applying Claudius’s rule, I suppose Malachy’s monk swimming would have made it into heaven. If I had said “a monk swimming,” my thoughts would have been about the surf down the road from our church.

Salinger’s Franny gets caught up with prayer, and one day, her brother Zooey explains the alleged benefits of the pilgrim’s prayer to his mother, who has expressed some concern for what Franny’s getting into: “And the main idea is that it’s not supposed to be just for pious bastards and breast-beaters,” Zooey says. “You can be busy robbing the goddam poor box, but you’re to say the prayer while you rob it.” The argument of the pilgrim’s prayer, in Zooey’s explanation, seems to run counter to the “words without thought” school of prayer.

Hemingway’s characters are often caught in prayer, or anti-prayer. Consider the waiter’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, for example, in the short story “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”: “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name….” And, “I don’t love anybody,” Krebs tells his mother in “Soldier’s Home.” “Now you pray,” his mother tells him. “I can’t,” he says. In the short piece titled “Chapter VII” in “The First Forty-Nine Stories,” a soldier caught in battle prays, “Dear jesus please get me out.” He makes promises to Jesus, bargains for his life, and “The shelling moved further up the line,” but “The next night back at Mestre he did not tell the girl he went upstairs with at the Villa Rossa about Jesus. And he never told anybody.”

What happens when Jesus gets prayers at odds, opposing viewpoints? Athletes often pray. A ballplayer will make the sign of the cross at the plate just before a pitch. Does this give the batter a kind of steroid-prayer advantage? But couldn’t the pitcher simply counter with a prayer of his own, just before delivery? Do the prayers then cancel out? But something has to happen to the pitch: call strike, ball, foul ball, base hit. But is this what prayer is supposed to be about? On the other hand, given the pilgrim’s prayer premise, why not position oneself in constant prayer? Baseball is a game of inches.

I pray you, is the idea of prayer to be always asking for something? But prayers are often made for the benefit of others. Praying for peace would seem to benefit everyone. We might pray for rain, or for a dry spell, for sun or shade, for our horse to finish first. If we have everything we need or want, should we then stop praying? But we might pray we don’t lose something, or that someone else gets everything they need or want. Is there ever enough prayer?

We pray for peace, health, safety, security. We pray for stuff. We pray that there be more stuff, and less stuff. Different kinds of stuff. Not everyone prays, of course, but if prayer is a question, surely everyone has a prayer at some point. What is gambling but a prayer, a prayer to the god of luck. John Cage said “…nothing is accomplished by writing, hearing, playing a piece of music } our ears are now in excellent condition.” Probably the same might be said of poetry. Not much accomplished there, either, and the most accomplished poets seem to know this, which improves the condition of their voice. Can the same be said of prayer?

Last year, New Directions published a small book collecting selections of Thomas Merton’s writing, titled “On Christian Contemplation.” For Merton, prayer seems to be a kind of poetry, but only after acknowledging a marketplace uselessness of both; and prayer, like poetry, might also transcend doctrine: “…ascending the slopes in darkness, feeling more and more keenly his own emptiness, and with the winter wind blowing cruelly through his now tattered garments, he meets at times other travelers on the way, poor pilgrim as he is, and as solitary as he, belonging perhaps to other lands and other traditions. There are of course great differences between them, and yet they have much in common.” Merton felt “much closer to the Zen monks of ancient Japan than to the busy and impatient men of the West.” He characterized these men as thinking “in terms of money, power, publicity, machines, business, political advantage, military strategy – who seek, in a word, the triumphant affirmation of their own will, their own power, considered as the end for which they exist.”

This does not mean that in prayer one escapes one’s responsibilities for putting bread on the table. This is a problem for poets, of course, too: “Simply to evade modern life would be a futile attempt to abdicate from its responsibilities [while clinging to its advantages. The way of contemplation is a way of higher and more permanent responsibilities] and a renunciation of advantages – and illusions,” Merton says.

The modern world presents problems for the poet and the prayer: “Can contemplation still find a place in the world of technology and conflict which is ours?” Peace, and wholeness, Merton argues, are not “the most salient characteristics of modern society.” No kidding. Yet, “What is keeping us back from living lives of prayer? Perhaps we really don’t want to pray. This is the thing we have to face.” But, if we do want to consider prayer, or contemplation, or poetry, how do we go about it? “If you want a life of prayer, the way to get it is by praying,” Merton says.

How does one pray? Merton says, “The best thing beginners…can do…is to acquire the agility and freedom of mind that will help them to find light and warmth and ideas and love for God everywhere they go and in all that they do. People who only know how to think about God during fixed periods of the day will never get very far in the spiritual life. In fact, they will not even think of Him in the moments they have religiously marked off for ‘mental prayer.'” And “mental prayer” is an awkward term, because we don’t pray with our minds, Merton explains.

But to return to the idea of uselessness, of prayer and of poetry, commercial uselessness, worldly uselessness: Merton says, “Christ does not control by power; further He does not control by law. This is one of the most important and neglected features of the New Testament.” Not everyone feels the need to enter into contemplation, prayer, or poetry, but that does not mean the need is not there, seeded within the individual soul. While at the same time one’s personal anguish might be so intense or one’s perspective so hurt as to call forth a dismissal of God and Christ and all the baggage one feels associated with the church and its people and prayer and what one sees to be the hypocrisy and futility of it all. So, “How does the theology of prayer approach this problem?” Merton asks. “Not by reasoning but by symbol, by poetic insight, leading directly to those depths of the heart where these matters are experienced and where such conflicts are resolved.”

On the other hand, one might want for something simple, a simple prayer, a simple poem. One shouldn’t have to google a prayer or a poem to enjoy the moment. To google literature, in a search for meaning, is to ruin a good meal. The same might be said for church prayer, church being the place where we google our souls, but any book might work, Merton says, and reading prayers out of a book, or reading a book as a prayer “is a good thing to do and very easy and simple.”

Why pray? “The real purpose of meditation is this,” Merton says: “To teach a man how to work himself free of created things and temporal concerns, in which he finds only confusion and sorrow.” Still, we might find ourselves bored with all of this, with the idea we are going to spend any time away from our busy schedules on something as trivial as prayer or poetry. We want to feel productive. We want to help others. We’ll go to church, appear to be part of some community, put some bills in the basket, sprinkle some holy water on our face, just in case there really is something to all the hocus-pocus. For the bored or busy, Merton seems to advise to not only get it while we can but where we can: “Learn how to meditate on paper. Drawing and writing are forms of meditation. Learn how to contemplate works of art. Learn how to pray in the streets or in the country. Know how to meditate not only when you have a book in your hand but when you are waiting for a bus or riding in a train.” One can pray “with few words or none…half-hopeless.” There are poems like this, or there should be.

There’s a chapter in the little Merton book titled “Silence.” Did Merton read John Cage? Merton says, “Whether the house be empty or full of children, whether the men go off to town or work with tractors in the fields, whether the liner enters the harbor full of tourists or full of soldiers, the almond tree brings forth her fruit in silence.” Another chapter is titled “Difficulties & Distractions.” One can’t escape all of one’s difficulties or distractions, even in prayer. Hamlet said he could bound himself in a nutshell and count himself a king of infinite space – were it not that he has bad dreams. Of this kind of tension, Merton says, “Do not strain yourself trying to get ideas or feel fervor. Do not upset yourself with useless efforts to realize the elaborate prospects suggested by a conventional book on meditation.”

“Everything good that comes to us and happens in prayer is a grace and a gift of God,” Merton says. “Even the desire to pray at all, and the attempt to pray, is itself a great grace.” Does this mean that God has ignored many of us, who may not feel this call to pray? Ah, but what is prayer? This claim of Merton’s rings true, pray or not: “The mere fact of having an opportunity to pray is something for which we should be deeply grateful.” Grateful, too, for the opportunity to contemplate poetry, to read, or even to try to write a poem.

There’s a wonderful poem included in the Merton book, called “Song for Nobody.” It seems to embody some of Merton’s idea of prayer:

A yellow flower
(Light and spirit)
Sings by itself
For nobody.

A golden spirit
(Light and emptiness)
Sings without a word
By itself.

Let no one touch this gentle sun
In whose dark eye
Someone is awake.

(No light, no gold, no name, no color
And no thought:
O, wide awake!)

A golden heaven
Sings by itself
A song to nobody.

Merton advocated contemplation in an age of distraction, where we might become free of anxiety and anguish magnified by the reckoning and wreckage surrounding us. And John Cage said nothing is accomplished with music, thus freeing our ears to all sounds. Cage said, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.” Maybe Shakespeare’s King Claudius should not be trusted when he says “words without thought never to heaven go.” Words without thought may indeed be the lingua franca of heaven, thoughts without words the mother tongue of heaven.

I confess I do not know how to pray, not in Merton’s view, where one prays with every breath one takes. And I have typically prayed only with reason, and with words, and this seems the wrong approach. One should pray without reason, and without words. Prayer occurs in the act of contemplation, then it disappears. Poetry occurs in the act of writing, then it disappears. “A poem should be wordless,” Archibald MacLeish said, “As the flight of birds.” Relax, Merton says. Make a poem a prayer. If no one reads it, if no one wants it, maybe God will accept it. For readers who have read to the bottom of this post, consider it a poem; for those who have ignored it, it’s a prayer, one with far too many words.

Christmas Platterful

Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has been filmed again and again, but one must read it to savor the chef’s cloves of exclamation points that spice the prose of the platterful Cratchit Christmas table: 

“Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered – flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.” 

Yet this is nothing compared to Joyce’s engorging in “The Dead,” the last story in Dubliners. Here he sets the stage for a food fight good and large: 

“A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.” 

Hemingway, reporting from Switzerland for The Toronto Star Weekly, in a piece entitled “Christmas on the Roof of the World” (December 22, 1923), tells how, after a day of skiing, they 

“…hiked up the hill towards the lights of the chalet. The lights looked very cheerful against the dark pines of the hill, and inside was a big Christmas tree and a real Christmas turkey dinner, the table shiny with silver, the glasses tall and thin stemmed, the bottles narrow-necked, the turkey large and brown and beautiful, the side dishes all present, and Ida serving in a new crisp apron. It was the kind of a Christmas you can only get on top of the world.” 

Meantime, at the bottom of the world, Faulkner’s people eat a Christmas dinner of “possum with yams, more gray ash cake, the dead and tasteless liquid in the coffee pot; a dozen bananas and jagged shards of cocoanut, the children crawling about his [Bayard Sartoris’s] feet like animals, scenting the food.” 

We are neither at the top nor the bottom of the world this Christmas eve morning, but we are where we have chosen to be, with the smell of a fresh cut tree mixing with coffee and the sound of jazz and family filling the air – our platter is full.

Hemingway surfing and writing

Timing is everything

at Leo Carillo, 1969.

We’ve been enjoying the El Porto Fridays blog. We can still feel the El Porto sand beneath our feet, the foam rushing over our board, the morning glass, the afternoon chop, the evening glass-off. We surfed there in the 60’s and 70’s, before heading out, like Huck Finns, for the territory, ahead of all the rest; well, ahead of some, behind others. The El Porto Fridays blog recently put up a post titled “5 Ways to Improve Your Surfing.” It had us thinking of Shaun Tomson’s Surfer’s Code, and of Hemingway and writing. 

A sentence is like a wave, as Hemingway often illustrated; Hemingway didn’t surf, but he does have Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises body surfing, and this famous sentence from the short story “Cross Country Snow” illustrates what could be a surfer on a wave:

“George was coming down in telemark position, kneeling; one leg forward and bent, the other trailing; his sticks hanging like some insect’s thin legs, kicking up puffs of snow as they touched the surface and finally the whole kneeling, trailing figure coming around in a beautiful right curve, crouching, the legs shot forward and back, the body leaning out against the swing, the sticks accenting the curve like points of light, all in a wild cloud of snow.”